“There’s Love in Silence”: Language and Living in Uncertainty in Brian Komei Dempster’s Seize
By Olivia Braley
February 4, 2022
Brian Komei Dempster
Four Way Books (2020)
As its title suggests, Brian Komei Dempster’s new poetry collection, Seize arrests the reader from the beginning and keeps them rapt in its world until the final page. These poems glimmer and sputter life’s beauty and brutality in equal measure. The collection explores the poet’s life through his relationship with his son, wife, parents, his own boyhood experiences, and how these intimate lives bleed into history, war, space, and time. In four careful and measured sections, we follow the poet as he dwells in the space between words and wars, trusting him with our hearts, which he takes just to the verge of shattering, then mends again and again.
One striking theme Demspter grapples with throughout the collection is that of language itself. These poems linger in a sparse lyricism that underscores and exemplifies on the page the tension between silence and speech that Dempster weighs in his poems. The result is that these poems are always in tension with themselves. Demspter asks, and forces the reader to consider: What are the limits of language? What is communicated when language is stripped away? We see these questions play themselves out early in the collection, such as in the poem “A Boy.” This narrative poem is operating in two places at once: in the speaker’s past, an instance of playground bullying, and in the present, with a disabled son. In Seize, history acquires more meaning over time, and the playground bullying that exhibits what one may see as normal childhood meanness is recontextualized in light of the speaker’s relationship to his son. We see that the speaker now realizes more acutely the power of words—a power juxtaposed by the fact that his son cannot speak due to his disability. Dempster writes, “In steam I tell myself / words will dissolve,” and later, “Moron. More than / a word.” The speaker would hope that his words hold no meaning or lasting effects, but he knows that words are more than just words, and can and have been wielded maliciously. “Be careful with those words,” he warns. Yet, these poems are simultaneously an argument in defense of language: Dempster’s deft and precise use of sound and syllable throughout the collection is an indication of that.
This investigation of words and their effects is intertwined with the speaker’s son, Brendan, who is almost entirely nonverbal. Dempster writes that Brendan’s mouth is full of “words / that never roll off / his tongue.” There is a very nuanced tension in Brendan’s disability: on the one hand, there is a limit, a barrier between Brendan and other people, created in the lack of shared vocabulary, however, there is also a sense of innocence in this speechlessness. Unlike the speaker and his friends as children, and unlike many of the other characters that we encounter in the collection, Brendan does not have the vocabulary to judge, bully, or cause harm with his words. Seen in this way, there is a sense of liberation in the disability, as well as a strong sense of isolation. Brendan is outside of the language of the world, but not entirely: he can hear, and even understand, but not speak. He is unburdened by the sense of regret that the poet identifies in his own past and that of others who use language as a weapon for cruelty but faces the additional obstacle of being trapped without speech, unable to defend himself.
Brendan is not made fully silent though, and Dempster teases out the nuance between words and sounds in poems such as “Brendan Lexicon.” Dempster highlights Brendan’s “own language,” made up of sounds such as ma, hai, duh, as well as actions: “claws tabletops / for dishes, tosses / spoons, thumps his feet / to funk / beats, dunks / orange ball.” This elucidates the rich and nuanced ways of communication that father and son have created from a lack. The emphasis on the importance of sound to communicate is exemplified in Dempster’s own command over sounds in this poem: the assonance of “thumps,” “funk” and “dunk,” and the alliterative “feet” and “funk” are just two examples. Language becomes both a tool and, in the wrong hands, a weapon. In Dempster’s hands they are undeniably the former, though even he is aware that with power over language comes the responsibility to wield it properly, and the precipice between using language for right and for wrong is something palpable: the poet knows what he is capable of.
While Dempster’s poems shine in the nuance of the domestic, they reach outside of the personal and approach themes of history, war, and identity. One stunning example of this is in “Truce,” which expands the difficult, tactical, at times even warlike state of home life to the speaker’s family history and American history through war. “Some days we are bombed harbors, then silence,” he writes, in a line that immediately marries the personal with the political. Dempster continues, “My torn sleeve, a white cloth, he holds up. Shots fire / from my mouth.” This line reiterates and gives new light to the collection’s exploration of the power of words by creating an analogy between war-torn history & the everyday war between father and son, shown in lines such as “Bedtime stories, a nightly clash.” In these two instances which differ on their face, the poet finds similarity, and brings it to bear: in both the household and the global sense of war, there is a lack of communication, which is at odds with the desire to reach some sort of truce. In this poem, Demspter also highlights the cyclical nature of a family’s history, likening his mother's experience leaving a war-torn country and immigrating to the United States, to Brendan’s disability: “Like my son, she / doesn’t know / the words.”
The first section ends with “Storm Music,” a lovely poem which brings together the themes of this section in harmony. Dempster creates a metaphor in which Brendan himself is music in the form of a record. Dempster writes, “Grooved dark. Unseen nicks. Sky’s black disc, we spin between static and song.” This oscillation between static and song identifies two kinds of non-verbal, pure sounds: one dissonant and confusing, the other harmonious, as if it overcomes and goes beyond language itself. The poet likens Brendan to this, spinning between both extremes. This poem, and with it the section, ends with the line “We wait / for lightning / to be light.” This line is so hopeful, so precariously heart-wrenching, one is forced to continue to section two with bated breath, wondering whether we will be met with static or song.
In the movement from sections 1 to 2, Dempster reflects on his own childhood as well as the social and cultural dynamics of the America of his youth. In poems such as “Exhaust,” we understand Brendan’s situation in a way that doesn’t undermine it but allows us greater access to relate through a more familiar experience. This section also heightens the tension in language and the sense of potential catastrophe in the everyday. In one of the most impactful poems of the section, “Severance,” Dempster keeps our heart on the line and the reader at the absolute edge of our seats. “I know / how hope begins—and then doesn’t,” he writes, as he slowly unfolds the narrative of Brendan’s surgery in clipped, tense lines that control our pace through the poem, making us pause as we simultaneously can’t stop hoping for the best.
One of the most affecting poems of this section is “James Byrd,” a poem which sets its sights away from the immediate and toward a horrific hate crime against a Black man. “We must never look // away. Face / the unimaginable” the poet commands. And then Dempster forces us to keep looking, with language that demands to be listened to. Later in the poem, he attempts to understand this unimaginable act of cruelty, asking as a direct address to James Byrd, “Can we understand what took them here, foot pressed to the pedal, laughing or quiet as they pulled your weight? This is just a poem, the search for words, witness to your voice erased.” The poet doesn’t seek to sympathize with the perpetrators, nor to excuse their behavior, but to ask if we can understand what brings someone to resort to this kind of violence, where language and understanding are obliterated. These lines claw at the unanswerable and bring the tension between language and silence, beauty and violence, and reach for the metapoetics that Dempster weaves through this collection. The poem itself is as necessary as it is potentially insufficient: it is a search for words that may not adequately capture the complexity of a moment, but it is also a form of witness, of giving voice and attention to those who have historically have not been ignored.
The collection finds balance by continually shifting the scope of the poems, inserting tender moments of adoration and domesticity between devastating poems on race and history. Poems like “Give and Take” and “Brendan’s Orange” give small moments of solace, things worthy of pause and celebration. “He tingled / leaned forward, / touched her / wrist.” The small yet significant moments like this throughout the collection hold enormous weight: they speak of connection, small success, and profound love.
In the third section, the personal lives of the poet and his family are revisited in greater detail with a new approach. Though his son still doesn’t communicate conventionally, there is a greater understanding of the way he does communicate—a more sophisticated language between parent and child. This is seen in poems such as “Broken,” which further juxtaposes words and sounds: “I do I do, he babbled his mantra. Our mouths chalked and torn away.” In these lines, Dempster’s diction is deliberate and exacting: through them, we see that Brendan “babbles,” like a brook, rather than speaking; and further, when he mimics speech through his comforting babble, his parents are rendered speechless. This inversion of who is using speech allows us to find a new significance in words and how they are used. “I do” holds significance for the parents as it is reminiscent of their wedding vows, and their relationship, whereas for Brendan the words are significant not for their denotative meaning, but for the comforting action they serve him. Brendan still speaks in actions, but by this third section it seems the speaker has a greater understanding of the significance of these actions, as if he has better learned the language: “His touch / A light flutter says, I’m here / His tightening grip, I’m scared.”
This sense of understanding that father cultivates toward son is present in gentle, reflective, and sparse poems such as “Brendan’s Twitter.” The genius here is the analogy to the word-heavy, social media platform, but also to the motif of Brendan as a bird throughout the collection, and the chirping sounds he produces. The poignant ending distills the complexity and marvellousness of a father trying to understand his son in a simple phrase: “Your life / is hard / to tell.” The arrested lines here create a sense of difficulty that we find throughout the collection. These lines can be taken two ways: it’s hard to tell because of the lack of communication, lack of normalcy, and the real, visceral difficulty, at times even described as “war,” which comes in raising Brendan; but also, the speechless beauty of their relationship and of fatherhood, in which so much is exchanged wordlessly, in moments such as “the sun / of your hands / warm on my back.”
In one of the more ambitious poems of the section, “My Son Loses Teeth Across Time, Space, Race and War,” we are reminded through the title of the immense scope of the collection: it focuses on the ordinary, everyday domestic scene, in a world that is backdropped by, or perhaps has a veil of time, space, race, and war over top of it. These larger issues oscillate—at times falling away in light of the immediate need, the precariousness in the beauty and terror of the quotidian. Yet at other times, they overwhelm the vision of the speaker. The past is blurred with the present as race and war and global terror make their way into the home, or as the home expands to encompass all that happens simultaneously, pulling our attention in each direction at each moment. Dempster’s poems are pulled taut, caught in the language and space between all these issues—a visceral tension that propels the reader forward, in a perhaps futile effort to resolve the unresolvable. However, the author does comfort us in this space, and helps the reader come to terms with the tension he highlights. This poem is disorienting, with its short, arrested sentences that oscillate between the present moment, the past, and the speaker’s own imagination. The poem ends, “I’ll see it coming. // If I wake.” The precariousness of the if underscores the exact tension the poem and collection as a whole examines: one can never be sure, which is exactly what makes life so terrifying, but also, adds a magic to each moment.
The fourth and final section of this collection manages to filter all of these themes and tensions like sun through stained glass, leaving us with a sense of comfort and acceptance, if still without answers to the deep and likely unanswerable questions that Dempster asks. The opening poem of the section, “Gold and Oak,” begins to fill us with woody warmth from the title alone. In the poem, Brendan is rendered as an oak, soothed by sound and music: “My boy is an oak, receives the wind of our conversation, catches scattered leaves of our words. My father’s brass, my brother’s string make sense to him. …the bow smooths out the noise in his head, brown eyes lit from inside, my gilded sapling.” Here the connection shared within a family through unspoken language is brought to bear, and Brendan is especially shown to have a more acute, purer kind of understanding of his surroundings. In rendering son as sapling, Brendan is made one with his world and characterized as a natural being unburdened by words. Similarly, there is a more direct connection between father and son. In Poems such as “Sun Sutra,” “Hai,” and “Da,” the poet communicates tenderly and personally to Brendan, using musical, lyric language that is more reminiscent of the songs that we’ve learned bring him comfort, or otherwise using the words and sounds that Brendan himself uses. There is a joy in watching how this connection has grown and the barriers that the speaker was confronted with in the first section are overcome through love, acceptance, and time. In later poems such as “Robin,” Dempster revisits old motifs—in this case Brendan as a bird—but this time, it ends with success and realized hopes: “I shadow him / and he flies.” This sense of peace and acceptance is underscored in nearly every poem of this section, such as “Seven Years After My Son’s Birth” and “Brendan’s I Am.” The latter poem is one of the most quietly affecting pieces of this stunning collection, conveying a parent’s hope and love for their son as well as the true power that words can have even if used sparingly. I refrain from citing the exact lines because I don’t want to ruin the experience of reading the poem for the first time, as well as the visual pleasure of watching the text dance across and down the page as it unfolds.
The last poem of the collection, aptly named “Tangle,” speaks to the tangle of love and anxiety, beauty and terror that connects us to one another and makes life whole. “Never just one way. The tangle. This could mean it’s all his fault. Or all ours. This could mean we’ll let go. Or we’ll never have to. A gold knot of shadow and light, he binds us,” Dempster writes. There is an acceptance in these lines, which is perhaps the closest we as humans can get to a resolution. Dempster’s repeated “this could mean” highlights that there are several equally plausible meanings for anything, but that true meaning is impossible to know. Seize ends not on the note we want to hear, but even better, on the one we need to. We must always keep asking questions, even when language fails.
OLIVIA BRALEYis the author of SOFTENING (ELJ Editions, 2021). Her writing has appeared in Hobart, Longleaf Review, Maudlin House, and elsewhere. She is a cofounder of Stone of Madness Press, where she currently serves as the Poetry Editor. She holds a MA in Liberal Arts from St. John's College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her partner and three (yes, three) cats. Find her on Twitter @OliviaBraley or at her website oliviabraleywrites.com.